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Joseph Krupczynski

Working alongside other experts—both in his field as well as in the community—Joseph Krupczynski serves as an Associate Professor of Architecture but extends his practice far beyond the university walls. He walks us through his community partnerships, commitment to language and culture, and their relevance to his new position as Director of Community Engagement and Service-Learning (CESL).


Your work requires you to consider the communities it serves. When did you realize this was how you wanted to approach architecture?

In 2004, I was a participant in the Faculty-Community Puerto Rican Studies Seminar in Holyoke, which was part of a Community Outreach Partnership Center (COPC) grant that I had received with several Five College colleagues. The seminar was designed for faculty who were interested in doing community-based course work in Holyoke, but weren’t familiar with the Puerto Rican community that is so important to the city’s identity.

What was really interesting and unique about this seminar was that it included both community members and Five College faculty. It created an environment where we were all learning together. It was a fascinating, eye-opening experience for me. This seminar allowed me to understand something about reciprocity, especially through community and university partnerships. Traditionally, one understands faculty as producing knowledge in the context of the university, but in this seminar, you could really understand the kind of knowledge that was produced by the community as well. And that exchange between those two ways of knowing had a real impact on me, and I think at that point—I was just beginning to do work in Holyoke—it influenced the way I approached architecture and design.

This experience also drew me to Holyoke and allowed me to connect to my roots. Having grown up in a working-class Puerto Rican and Polish family in Brooklyn, New York, working in Holyoke was something of a homecoming for me and helped me establish strong community ties, develop the kind of public art and design work that promotes cultural expression, and focus on social justice and community empowerment.

Has this kind of work sprung from traditional but unsuccessful architectural efforts?

In some ways that’s true. If you’re looking at architectural practices in general, I think that you have the failure of modern architecture in the 50s and the 60s to address real community and social needs. A lot of the housing projects that were produced during that time were unsuccessful and inhumane. One example is the Pruitt-Igoe, a famous housing complex which was only occupied for a few years and which is very well-known because you see the photos and films of it being imploded and destroyed.

So, as a response to so-called “urban renewal,” there was a movement to have communities be greater participants in their built environment—to develop ways for people and communities to participate in the design of spaces and places that are more reflective of who they are.

It’s complicated, though, and some of the responses, such as New Urbanism—which emphasizes a traditionalist approach to architecturecan work from assumptions about what “community” architecture looks like. I’m critical of those approaches that, sometimes, reduce communities to simplistic and idealized images. I am more interested in community-based practices that are critical, that ask questions, that engage the complexity of “community” and make explicit the social and cultural conditions that communities are part of.

How does the Center for Design Engagement (C*DE) attempt to challenge those modes that have been historically present?

With the Center for Design Engagement, the name defines what it is and what we do. We look at the ways in which design grows from engaging communities, and how those communities contribute to making design. It was founded by myself and my Architecture Department colleagues Max Page and Kathleen Lugosch so we could have a venue to explore this idea of “What does it mean for communities to participate in the making of their built environments?” In the years since it started, many of our projects have worked with communities and organizations that traditionally don’t have access to architectural and design services.

What kinds of backgrounds and skills do your collaborators bring to the table?

Well, our collaborators really are our community partners. They bring a wealth of knowledge about the community they live in. We like to say that the community [members] are the experts on their communities, because they have been living in them. They recognize the challenges and the opportunities and the assets that are in the community.

What our partners bring to the table it is that deeper understanding of the places in which they live and work—what those places are really like. And I think one part of that—one important part of that—is the kind of asset-based understanding of a place. I think often in a place like Holyoke, which is challenged by a lot of economic and social markers—of unemployment, school dropout rates—the strength of the community is, at times, concealed.

In community development terms, what groups of people are considered “underrepresented communities”?

Underrepresented people are those that are often not “at the table.” Due to historic patterns, structural racism, or socio-economic exclusion, there are some communities that have not been able to fully participate in decision-making processes—whether planning or political—that define their built environments. And it is usually the folks who are not at the table that are most impacted by environments, policies, and laws that perhaps wouldn’t be created if they were at the table. That is why equity is so important to my work. Equity and engagement go hand-in-hand, and only by making intentional efforts to have everyone involved in design and planning processes will we arrive at an equitable future.

Clearly, communities of color within Western Mass are underrepresented. A graduate student I worked with a couple years ago did a study that looked at political representation in Western Mass compared to the overall demographics of the region. And they don’t align: the overall political representation was much whiter and older than the actual demographics of our local communities. That kind of underrepresentation is problematic if we want to have a participatory democracy that reflects who we are.

Slowly you see efforts and changes in that. In Holyoke and Springfield particularly, you see more representation of people of color on city councils. You have powerful, new political actors that are beginning to have an influence in the city: Nelson Roman and Jossie Valentin in Holyoke, and in Springfield, Adam Gomez.

But underrepresentation can also be seen affecting those of different abilities. People with disabilities are underrepresented, and we can see the positive impacts on policies and laws when they are at the table. For instance, we have a law like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because of the advocacy of people with disabilities, and it has had a profound influence on the built environment. The ADA was made to make people with disabilities have greater access, but it also produced some great effects for a broad range of people: moms with strollers, bicycle riders, older people who benefit from more accessible pathways. The ADA is a law that is focused on equity, and when equity works really well, it actually works for everyone.

Was there a community project that spoke to you most deeply?

One project that spoke to me deeply was “Arrivals,” a public art project for a pedestrian underpass in Holyoke that I designed with my UMass colleague Caryn Brause. We conceived of a 30-foot-long wall that represented a historic street scene of Holyoke. This image was made with perforated metal panels and backlit with LED lights. Interspersed within this larger image were a series of stories—excerpts from stories—that we collected from people in Holyoke talking about their arrival into the city.

We developed this project through several public meetings that invited Holyoke residents to tell us their arrival story. People talked about being a kid and riding a bike through the city, or moving into the neighborhood recently and loving to hear Spanish being spoken, or being a part of a faith-based community and how that was really important when they first arrived. We didn’t identify any names in the stories—they were identified just by the date of arrival—and what that allowed, I think, was for people to project themselves into someone else’s stories—to connect across age, experience, and ethnicity. Actually, on the day of the opening, there was a woman walking by with her daughter—maybe five or six years old—and she was walking by the wall, and she said, “Look, Mommy! I grew up in the Flats, too.” The first line of this particular story was “I grew up in the Flats,” which is the neighborhood where this work is located. I know that that particular story was told by an elderly man of Irish descent at the senior center—who had grown up in the Flats—and here was a young, Puerto Rican girl reading that story and identifying with it. It was that kind of connection that was very satisfying.

When we put all the stories up—some of them we had collected in Spanish, and some of them in English—we wanted to make sure that everything was bilingual since both English and Spanish are regularly spoken in this area of Holyoke. Once the piece was up, we came to realize that this public art project was the first time that Spanish was used in the public realm in the city. There’s no official signage in Spanish in the city; this was the first time, in any capacity, that the Spanish language was in a public setting. The city is a bilingual city, a city that has many people who speak Spanish and who, in certain areas of the Flats and South Holyoke, speak Spanish as a primary language. This was an exciting way that the public realm could really be representative of the community that was there.

In what other ways does multilingualism play a role in your practice?

Max Page and I recently completed a project called “Holyoke Visible.” When we started the project it wasn’t called that; that name grew out of conversations with community members about what a project about public spaces in Holyoke should be about—and how communities can contribute and be part of it. One of the things that came out of our discussions was a recognition that there were really wonderful things in Holyoke, but they’re not visible. People were saying that, often, if someone is coming to do a project in Holyoke, they want to put something new in Holyoke—something that would “develop” Holyoke. What we heard from folks who live in the city is that there’s not enough recognition of the amazing things that are already there, and that is how the project became “Holyoke Visible.”

So, as we began to frame this project as “what could we make more visible in Holyoke?” Three themes emerged: one was food, one was culture, and one was language. The “Holyoke Visible” project then became a three-event project around each one of those themes. One of the most successful events was the language event. We held a bilingual poetry reading, working with Nathalie Vicencio, who lives in Holyoke and is very involved in its poetry community, which includes poets that write and recite in Spanish as well as in English. It was really a phenomenal event. Lots of poets came, and there was simultaneous translation at the event—from English to Spanish and from Spanish to English. Both monolingual English speakers as well as Spanish speakers got headphones.

Efforts like these emphasize that the Spanish language is an asset—that bilingualism is an asset—something that makes the Holyoke community a much more complex and cultured place. In the current political climate where there’s a demonization of the “other” and a demonization of Latinos through current immigration debates, this provides an antidote to that kind of rhetoric. It demonstrates that language and bilingualism is this amazing cultural asset, one that can be really celebrated and explored.

So what’s something that people may not understand about sustainability?

People describe sustainability as a balance between, and an intersection of, the environment, economy, and equity, and that’s the basic diagram of sustainability. The issue is that, in practice, the equity component gets the short stick. It’s not paid as much attention to, but the environmental and economic parts get a great deal of attention. So, one of our efforts when we reach out to underrepresented communities is to emphasize the equity component of that triad. It is often that piece that underrepresented communities—communities that are impacted by climate change and issues of environmental justice—care about deeply.

A lot of times when people talk about sustainability, they think about solar panels and recycling, which are absolutely essential for a sustainable community. But we use solar panels so that we don’t pollute our air and increase asthma levels—which are quite high in cities like Springfield or Holyoke. If we’re recycling, it’s the same thing: we’re recycling so that we don’t have to burn trash or overuse landfills, which all increase greenhouse gases, and which cause dire environmental problems. Connecting to equity in sustainability is something that I try to emphasize in all the work I do.

This is particularly important in my new role as Director of Civic Engagement and Service-Learning on campus, since I’m trying to bring some of the ideas that have been central to my work into that office. It is an exciting time to be involved in civic engagement on a college campus, especially as social movements for human rights, racial justice, and climate change play increasingly powerful roles in student lives and faculty research.